top of page
  • Staff

The Birth of Hip Hop and Hip Hop Studies, Plus a Brief Chat with Author and Scholar Jeff Chang


Boombox
Boombox

Theoretically, hip hop was born in New York City on the night of August 11th in 1973, when Cindy Campbell rented the recreation room inside of her apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx. Wanting to raise some funds for a fresh wardrobe before the start of the new school year, Campbell and her rising disc-jockey-brother Clive threw a Back-to-School Party that made them $300 and lasted into the early morning.


The medium-sized indoor space was tightly packed with young people dancing away to the booming bass and dub sounds Clive played over his Kingston-inspired, Jamaican-style sound system (the loudest in the neighborhood); his friend Coke La Rock toasted (spoke over) records. That night, Cindy became The First Lady of Hip-Hop, Clive cemented his reputation as DJ Kool Herc, and the Hip Hop Block Party became a cultural phenomenon.


“After the block party, we couldn’t come back to the rec room,” Herc explained to Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005); the work received the American Book Award after its publication and is often cited by hip hop and pop culture-related critics, journalists, scholars, and philosophers. It examines the many factors that have led to the emergence of hip hop and hip hop culture, on and long before its “birthday.”


Realistically, the birth of hip hop was a natural byproduct of events that created the right circumstances for its emergence. One of these was Robert Moses’s Renewal Project and the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway that began in 1948 — the first highway built through a crowded urban environment in the country, which directly displaced 60,000 people, and arguably the most expensive mile of road ever constructed on the earth.


Before the expressway, the South Bronx was “among the most racially integrated in the country.” And after, property values plummeted, white folks fled to the suburbs (lured by government-backed mortgages), while black and brown residents remained (with few other available options due to red-lining and racist housing policies). The subsequent collapse of local businesses coupled with disinvestment in services from the city further worsened conditions.


Unemployment rose sharply, especially among young people. The vacant lots, abandoned apartment buildings, and mass displacement paved the way for poverty, gang violence, turf wars, drugs and arson that started to peak throughout the 1960s. By the end of the decade, Puerto Rican, Black and white gangs had divided up The Bronx, with an estimated 11,000 members across 100 different gangs.


"Hip-hop did not start as a political movement," argues Chang. "There was no manifesto. The kids who started it were simply trying to find ways to pass the time, they were trying to have fun. But they grew up under the politics of abandonment and because of this, their pastimes contained the seeds for a kind of mass cultural renewal." But how, then, did a serious social and economic situation in New York’s northernmost borough evolve into a global movement?


The question birthed a new academic discipline. After all, five years would pass between the fateful night Cindy and Clive Campbell decided to throw a party and the day Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins, a member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, would scat sing “hip/hop/hip/hop” mimicking the rhythmic cadence of marching soldiers. He soon worked the “hip hop” cadence into his stage performance and inadvertently coined the term.


Breakdancing
Breakdancing

Music is only one component of hip hop culture, the others being turntablism, breakdancing, graffiti art, and knowledge. It’s hard to say when the five modalities joined to become hip hop culture, with some existing long before the music brought them under one umbrella; hence research includes analyses of technology, pop culture, linguistics, globalization, geography, race, electoral politics, and a variety of aspects related to contemporary culture.


The first use of the term in print, referring specifically to hip hop culture and its elements, was in January of 1982, when hip hop pioneer and South Bronx community leader Afrika Bambaataa gave an interview to Michael Holman for the East Village Eye. Bambaataa, however, credits DJ Lovebug Starski as the first to use the term "hip hop" as it relates to the culture in general. Still, he further popularized it in subsequent interviews and entered it into mainstream awareness.


Sampling — or updating classic recordings, attitudes, and experiences for modern audiences — may be the defining aspect of hip hop culture. Musically, this means sampling tracks, beats, and basslines from old records and using them in novel ways. Culturally, it means taking something from the past and flipping it to make something modern or futuristic (like Afrofuturism). Even hip hop scholarship is rooted in the foundational, Afro-diasporic call-and-response mechanism.


“Hip hop necessitates anything but ‘easy’ listening and passive consumption,” argue the authors of The Hip in Hip Hop: Toward a Discipline of Hip Hop Studies. “Moreover, its messages of resistance, social awareness, personal consciousness, activism, pleasure and power, and community engagement have transcended its early days of locality in the Bronx and West Coast cities against the turmoil of post-industrialism.”


“In the face of historical and contemporaneous forms of prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, intolerance, and oppression, hip hop has created a critical social mass of individuals that have unapologetically challenged the status quo and validated the voluminous experiences of marginal people in America and abroad.” In other words, through Hip Hop, one was able to discover the shared experiences and crises taking place in various urban cities.


Hip hop studies is a multidisciplinary field that integrates sociology, anthropology, communication and rhetoric studies, cultural studies, art history, dance, ethnomusicology, music theory, and gender studies. Scholars such as Tricia Rose, Cornel West, Anthony B. Pinn, Jeff Chang, Bakari Kitwana, Murray Forman, and others, were among some of the first to give hip hop academic legitimacy.


The study of hip hop unofficially began with Rose’s 1994 work Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. In it, she “examines the complex and contradictory relationships between forces of racial and sexual domination, black cultural priorities, and popular resistance in contemporary rap music,” while outlining the social context of rap's existence. It is one of the most influential early full-length texts on rap and hip hop culture.


Mic
Mic

Rose argues that the world incorrectly thinks of rap as the summation of hip hop. To her, it’s just a tool used to deliver a message, whatever it may be. Moreover, “rap music brings together a tangle of some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society.” As such, “rap’s contradictory articulations are not signs of absent intellectual clarity; they are a common feature of community and popular cultural viewpoint.”


Since 1994, more and more scholars have taken an interest in hip hop studies, a term that began circulating in the mid-2000s, likely thanks to the publication of the unprecedented anthology That's the Joint!: The Hip Hop Studies Reader in 2003. The publication of the first edition of That's the Joint! marked a consolidating moment for the field of hip hop studies because it brought together key writings on hip hop from a diversity of hip hop authorities.


The inception of the Hip Hop Archive & Research Institute at Harvard in 2002 was another validating moment for the new field, with more institutions following suit. In Hip Hop Matters (2005), professor and media scholar S. Craig Watkins labels the increasing interdisciplinary cohort of hip hop academics and scholars as the "hip-hop intelligentsia,” and suggests that their existence is one of the greatest achievements of the hip hop movement.


One of the more popular methodologies used in hip hop studies is ethnography — a qualitative research method central to knowing the world from the standpoint of its social relations. The mode of inquiry enables researchers to include a multiplicity of voices, and showcases the experiential knowledge of hip hop doers and consumers. Ideally this method highlights the knowledge and dual authority of practitioners and academics.


But hip hop studies have their skeptics. Davey D. (David Cook) — the Bronx native, hip hop scholar, historian, adjunct professor, and community activist — has criticized academic hip hop, claiming that the narrow standards that define legitimate scholarly inquiry exclude individuals who practice hip hop. The discipline's biggest flaw, he believes, is not centering the standards, aesthetics, and — most of all — the artists, practitioners, and fans in hip-hop studies.


Critiques of hip hop studies also include debate about which kind of writing is considered authentic or legitimate within the field, and the accessibility that non-academics would have to those texts, both physically and comprehensively. Regardless, over the last three decades, three categories of writing on hip hop culture have emerged. These are works by academics, works by journalists and cultural critics, and works by hip-hop devotees.


Still, hip hop studies provide incredible insight into hip hop culture, past and future; Cindy Campbell may be The First Lady of Hip Hop, but women in the industry have had notoriously rough experiences; the civil rights movement and groups like the Black Panthers in particular profoundly influenced the emergence of gangster rap, as did blaxploitation in the years prior; and the complex relationship between Christianity and mainstream hip hop is illuminating.


Understandably, much of the surrounding scholarship revolves around examining the historical and socio-political elements of Hip Hop. Chang is credited with giving a comprehensive and approachable look at these factors in Can't Stop Won't Stop, to which Dj Kool Herc wrote the introduction. And while the work is critically acclaimed for being well researched and meticulously written, it’s also criticized for overly focusing on hip hop’s political aspects.


The historian, journalist, and music critic is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where he was influenced by the anti-apartheid and the anti-racist movements, and UCLA, where he worked as a community laborer and student organizer. In 1993, Chang co-founded and ran the indie hip hop label SoleSides, which is now known as Quannum Projects. He is credited with helping launch the careers of DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and Lateef the Truthspeaker.


Chang’s life experiences coupled with the fact that the book is — as he himself argued — a small contribution to a larger conversation, may excuse his focus on socio-political factors. And, considering that so much of it is based on his numerous interviews with graffiti artists, gang members, DJs, rappers, and hip hop activists — many of whom have dealt with various aspects of the law and law enforcement — context seems crucial for understanding the movement.


Chang has been consistent in his interests. He was an organizer of the inaugural National Hip-Hop Political Convention in the early 2000s. The year his book was published, he participated in a conversation with Tom Hayden, the social and political activist and director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center. In 2007, he interviewed then-candidate Barack Obama for the cover of Vibe. He edited Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop the same year.


More recently, Chang was the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts + Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford University. In June 2018, Chang left the Institute to become the first vice president of Narrative, Arts, and Culture at Race Forward. Over the years, he has lectured at colleges, universities, festivals, and institutions in the U.S. and around the world.


Jeff Chang
Jeff Chang

ARTpublika Magazine had a chance to catch up with Jeff Chang, and ask him about his love of hip hop, academia surrounding hip hop, and the biggest changes in the culture that he’s observed since the publication of his seminal work.


What first made you fall in love with hip hop? When was this and how old were you?


I was a kid growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, very far from the Bronx. But what the youths were doing there hit me in the gut. I wanted to learn more about it, and then to do it. I started off tagging and really got into the music, and later became a DJ.


Can you tell us more about your days as Jeff "DJ Zen" Chang and the weekly broadcasting of your hip hop show in college as well as how that led to the founding of SoleSides in 1991?


You did your research! Yes, I was involved in college radio from 1985-onward in the really vibrant hip hop movement in the Bay Area. I was influenced by DJs like Davey D and Kevvy Kev, who had moved to the West Coast from the Bronx. Hip hop was intertwined with the anti-apartheid movement and with a rising Black consciousness, which deeply influenced me as a kid of Chinese and Native Hawaiian descent.


I brought the college radio vibes to KDVS at the University of California at Davis in 1990 and, through my radio show there, immediately tapped into the hip hop heads in the area. I was just really lucky to be doing the show at a moment when DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Chief Xcel, and Joseph Patel, were all coming on campus. They tuned into the show and I invited them to hang out with me. Each of them were also incredible talents and all I did was encourage them to work together rather than compete. That’s how we became good friends and founded SoleSides. We all kind of rose with the independent West Coast hip hop underground.


DJ at work
DJ at work

When you started to work with various hip hop artists, what were the most eye opening experiences for you?


Really, the music was an entry point to understanding the Black freedom culture, which links to the Black freedom movement. I got to meet and learn from pioneers like the Watts Prophets [as well as to learn how the rhythms and ideas that [were almost] destroyed through the Middle Passage came back together in hip-hop. I got into it because it was fun and it spoke to me, but the artists, the music, and the culture, gave me and so many of us a voice and tools for liberation.


What inspired you to write your critically-acclaimed book?


After SoleSides ended, the guys went on to form Quannum Projects and to have incredible careers. They are all still recording today – Lateef just dropped a new record and DJ Shadow has as well. They are masters of the artform now. I wanted to find my own way to express my appreciation for hip hop, to give back to the culture and to those who had inspired me. I found writing was the best vehicle to do that. I wrote the book for my homies and for my mentors and my inspirations. It was like my stepping into the cypher. It’s just a bonus to have it be accepted and even more satisfying to see it influence younger folks, like my sons’ generation.


Now that hip hop studies have been around for roughly two decades, what changes have you observed in how academics conduct the research?


In the beginning hip hop had no desire to be validated by the academy. But the study of hip hop has gone from outsiders talking about the culture and the movement to us younger folks, who grew up on it and [are] in it, doing the work. That leads qualitatively to a different investment and a different perspective. What I think many of us recognize now is the importance of being able to document and share the knowledge, because it contains so much of what we need to be free. Hip hop studies is just another term for passing on the knowledge, and it will continue whether or not we do it in the academy.


How has hip hop culture itself evolved since the 1990s?


Well, in the 1990s hip hop became popular culture throughout the world. Now there’s big money involved in it, and sometimes it has meant that the culture has been deracinated and the power of hip hop – which is to say the power of Black freedom culture – has been undermined. At the same time, hip hop has given voice to young people in their struggles to be free all around the world.


What can you reveal about the relationship between hip hop and art in general that may be illuminating for the public to know?


In a world where young people are silenced, hip hop still speaks the loudest to their joys, their pains, and their desires for a better world.


Is there anything you’d like to share about yourself or your work that has not been addressed?


Thank you for the opportunity to share!


bottom of page